Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ailing Castro holds four-hour meeting with Venezuela's Chavez

Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque greet Hugo Chavez in Havana on October 13, 2007. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office)

11 hours ago

HAVANA (AFP) — Cuba's ailing revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, long absent from public appearances, met with his ally Hugo Chavez ahead of a broadcast Sunday by the Venezuelan president from Cuban soil.

No pictures were broadcast from the mammoth four-hour meeting of the 81-year-old leader with his socialist Venezuelan counterpart on Saturday, reported by official state television.

But the latest visit from Chavez -- a staunch ally, trading partner and fellow antagonist of the United States -- raised speculation in Havana that Castro may be about to speak out in person.

On Sunday, Chavez is to broadcast his weekly radio program "Alo, Presidente" from the Cuban city of Santa Clara, the last burial place of the iconic revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara, who died 40 years ago this week.

In February Castro took part in Chavez's program by telephone, in a half-hour conversation with Chavez which was broadcast live from Venezuela. Sources did not confirm if he would do so again on Sunday.

Fidel Castro has stayed out of public view since undergoing intestinal surgery for an unspecified illness in July 2006, but has communicated through regular articles in the communist regime's official newspapers.

This is Chavez's seventh visit to Cuba since Castro's health crisis. The Venezuelan leader used each of the previous visits to speak to the public about the Cuban leader's health.

Pictures have provided the only glimpses of Castro for the past year. He was last seen in a video interview released on September 21, when rumors were rife that he had died. He appeared frail, dressed in the track suit that since his illness has replaced his traditional army fatigues.

The two leaders in their talks Saturday focused "on the history of our two peoples, the solid and growing relations between Cuba and Venezuela, the situation in Latin America and the serious problems faced by humanity," the television report said.

It said Castro shared with the Venezuelan president his recollections of the Argentine-born revolutionary Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia.

The Venezuelan president also plans to meet with Fidel Castro's brother Raul, who officially took over the reins of power in Cuba on July 31, 2006, following the leader's operation.

Authorities have remained tight-lipped about the communist leader's condition. Castro, who has survived several assassination attempts, said shortly after his surgery that his health must remain a "state secret."

Accompanied on the trip by his ministers of foreign affairs, energy, agriculture, communication and tourism, Chavez was also due to review bilateral agreements with Cuba on health, education, sport and trade."

"He will have a dialogue with the Cuban authorities and does not rule out signing some of the agreements that we have been working on," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Roque told reporters on Friday.

Trade and energy are priority issues. Cuba, under tight embargo by the United States, imports 92,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela and the two allies did 2.5 billion dollars' worth of trade in 2006.

Cuba broke off diplomatic relations with the United States in 1961, two years after Castro led the revolution that ousted the former US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. A year later the US trade embargo on Cuba began.

The current US President George W. Bush has branded Castro a "cruel dictator" and supports a democratic transition from communist rule.

The socialist livewire Chavez meanwhile has repeatedly railed against Bush and the United States' influence, while pushing radical populist reforms at home.

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